Katie Elder lived modestly in the frontier town of Clearwater. Her alcoholic, gambling husband lost their ranch in a poker game and was fatally shot (in the back) that same night. She made dresses and gave guitar lessons to earn the money to send the youngest of her four sons to college. Katie only owned two dresses herself–one for the winter and one for the summer. She never heard from her sons, but told the town’s residents that they sent her money on a regular basis. She counted her oldest son’s letters among her most prized possessions and read them frequently–though he had stopped writing new ones long ago. She even prepaid for her funeral.
All of this is news to her sons, who arrive in Clearwater at the beginning of The Sons of Katie Elder to bury their mother. We learn that the eldest son, John (John Wayne), left home 10 years earlier and eventually became a gunfighter (the sheriff notes, “John Elder isn’t wanted for anything…around here”). Matt Elder (Dean Martin) is a con man and gambler. Youngest son Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) doesn’t want to return to college. And Matt Elder (Earl Holliman), well, he just seems to be wasting his life away. In short, the Elder boys are not a very sympathetic lot.
Instead of going their separate ways again after the funeral, the brothers decide to look into their father’s murder. Though they can’t find any witnesses nor evidence, they become suspicious of Morgan Hastings, a gun-maker who now owns the old Elder ranch. The town’s mortician confides to John, “Hastings’ bent on taking over the whole county.” As the audience, we already know Hastings is bad–he has hired a gunfighter (George Kennedy) to dispose of John. It quickly becomes apparent that The Sons of Katie Elder is heading steadily toward a major showdown.
While Sergio Leone was reinventing the Western in Europe in the mid-1960s, American filmmakers like Henry Hathaway were churning out solid, traditional ganre entries like this one. There are effective moments in the opening scenes of Katie Elder, such as John watching his mother’s funeral in the distance, knowing his presence would only cause disruption. Hathaway frames his celluloid images like a painter, with colorful mountains often adding visual majesty to the backgrounds. There are some potentially rich themes in The Sons of Katie Elder, too, principally that tragedy can reinvigorate the bonds of family. After spending time with his brothers, John apparently wants the camaraderie to continue and proposes they join together to deliver a herd of horses. It’s not a long-term solution toward reuniting the family, but it’s a start.
Anthony Mann explored the importance of family masterfully in his adult Westerns of the 1950s. One wonders how Mann would have handled this material with a different cast (e.g., imagine an embittered James Stewart as John!). But The Sons of Katie Elder has no intentions of being a “serious Western.” Yes, there are killings, but the bickering brothers also brawl playfully whether carousing in Mom’s cabin or throwing each other in a river. And when it turns somewhat serious toward the end, the film jettisons its “importance of family” theme in favor of two lengthy shootout scenes.
One can’t fault the cast, which certainly appears game. However, it’s unfortunate that Katie Elder re-teams John Wayne and Dean Martin–simply because it recalls their earlier pairing in Howard Hawks’ superior 1959 frontier drama, Rio Bravo. My recommendation is that you block out that movie and just accept The Sons of Katie Elder for what it is: a well-made, likable, but disposable Western that missed the opportunity to be more.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!